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This Week in Hockey East

College Hockey:
Wrapping up Frozen Fenway, where the weather didn’t want to cooperate

Maine’s Cam Brown and Boston University’s Matt Lane splash through the puddles during last Saturday’s Frozen Fenway game (photo: Melissa Wade).

The grounds crew working at historic Fenway Park last Saturday looked more like they were working to get the greens playable at a rain-soaked U.S. Open golf tournament rather than a crew trying to clean wet ice.

And that the last sentence referenced three sports tells you just how crazy Saturday was at Frozen Fenway.

But that’s exactly the image that was put forward near the midway point of the first period between Boston University and Maine.

After massive claps of thunder accompanied bright flashes of lightning, rain poured down upon the ice sheet in buckets, putting a layer of nearly a half a foot of water on the temporary rink. And just when everyone thought the game would be halted because of the rain, out came a crew of seven with large brooms that you typically see rink crews use to remove a little bit of excess water after a flood from a Zamboni.

This time, these brooms were being used to push gallons of water toward an opening behind one of the goals onto the third-base line of Fenway Park.

The surreal scene was what was necessary to even give the crew a shot at keeping the ice playable. After removing as much water as possible, the two Zambonis did the rest of the work, providing a dry scrape that took most of the remaining water away.

At the end, it was the single strangest moment in hockey most will ever witness.

The torrential rain brought to an end two weeks of Hockey East’s attempts to stage outdoor hockey when Mother Nature had no plans to cooperate.

Week one was made difficult by more than a foot of snow that fell two days in advance of a doubleheader pitting Merrimack against Providence and Boston College against Notre Dame. Although the Fenway crew removed most of the snow, the frigid temperatures that followed on game night made the ice so brittle it was cracking.

It took seven-and-a-half hours to play those two games without any sort of delay like Maine and BU faced last Saturday. Extended intermissions and lengthened TV timeouts allowed the ice crew to mend as many holes as possible in the Fenway ice.

When the original weather forecast was presented for this past Saturday’s doubleheader, there was optimism as the temperatures were predicted in the high 40s, ideal conditions for players and fans alike.

Then came the rain. Hockey East wisely moved up the game times from 3 and 6:30 p.m. to noon and 3 p.m. But forecasts showed even that might not be enough.

Given a difficult decision to postpone the two-game slate to Sunday, something that could have made it difficult for ticket holders to attend, and try to squeeze the games in between rain drops, commissioner Joe Bertagna chose the latter.

“You have a lot of people who bought tickets for [Saturday] and maybe they can’t come Sunday,” said Bertagna. “We were trying to have that balance between accommodating people and juggling the elements.”

Once the commitment to Saturday was made, it was up to Bertagna’s ice crew to provide the best conditions possible. That included dry scraping the ice at times, taking breaks to clear away standing water and yes, moving gallons of water off the top of the ice surface during what amounted to a 69-minute rain delay.

Bertagna, who admirably faced the media during the second intermission of the BU-Maine game, was clear that he knew they could never provide the conditions that would be found at a campus rink. But they also knew that they could provide conditions that made the ice playable.

“It was a matter of maintaining the ice to playable conditions,” Bertagna said. “Not typical conditions, but playable conditions.”

In the end, both games of both doubleheaders were finalized and, even though conditions were difficult, those involved maintained as positive of an attitude as could be expected.

“[The spirit] of the coaches was pretty good,” said Bertagna. “Coaches are driven and these are league games. In the context of our new schedule, when you reduce the number of games, one point has a lot of weight to it.”

One coach who was a bit critical of Frozen Fenway was Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson. After his team’s loss to Boston College in the first week of the event, Jackson said that there is an oversaturation of outdoor games resulting in a lack of interest.

In a way, that showed both weeks at Fenway. The first two versions of the event, played in 2010 and 2012, sold out each single-day doubleheaders.

This time, Hockey East took a larger bite of the apple with two separate doubleheaders. The result was two dates where games were played in front of a half-empty-looking stadium. According to Bertagna, the first week’s games drew more than 30,000 in ticket sales but only about 24,000 fans in the seats. Last Saturday’s announced paid attendance was 25,580, and Bertagna estimated about 17,000 fans walked through the turnstiles.

The attrition can mostly be attributed to the poor weather of both dates. But the reality was more than 55,000 fans purchased tickets to the event.

So the question comes: Should Frozen Fenway continue?

Not surprisingly, Bertagna wasn’t going to answer that question last Saturday. He said speculating would take away from the hard work of everyone involved, something that easily can be overlooked. The truth is, most involved closely with this event put in countless hours of overtime to pull it off.

So what should the league do moving forward with what has become an every-other-year event?

There are a number of options. The most obvious might be reducing the Hockey East portion of the event to a single game. Though the original event in 2010 featured a men’s and women’s doubleheader, most of the tickets sold were related to the men’s game, thus creating a sold-out feel to the ballpark.

One of the challenges to this is financial. The cost of putting a rink at Fenway Park or any other venue is significant, and one single game cannot in any way recoup those expenses. But the league could consider allowing other leagues/teams to use the ice, similar to what was done this year (women’s, Division III, high school, prep school, alumni games, etc.), but market to the masses the single Hockey East game.

At the same time, there could be a consideration of a change in venues for the event. While Fenway Park and the Red Sox have been gracious hosts, the simple fact is the sight lines are poor. Any seats in the lower box levels of the park block the ability to see the puck. The top seats at Fenway in club/luxury levels and on top of the Green Monster were cost-prohibitive for many. Thus, most of the fans crushed themselves into the tight grandstand seats, far enough away from the action to remove much of the atmosphere.

One potential venue for the event in the future could be Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., the home of the New England Patriots. There has already been some rumor that the NHL might be looking at Gillette for a future outdoor game, and piggy-backing that event would make sense. There would be considerably more seats that would have a clear view of the play (albeit from far away).

Regardless the future decisions, the 2014 version of Frozen Fenway is over. Bertagna can breathe a sigh of relief and maybe spend some time thawing/drying out.

Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau (right) has six goals and six assists in five games since the winter break (photo: Melissa Wade).

Gaudreau takes over national scoring lead

A couple of weeks ago, I noted in this space that Johnny Gaudreau was playing some pretty impressive hockey.

In the last two weeks, that has hardly ceased. We couldn’t have known, though, that in a short period of time, he would become the nation’s scoring leader.

Entering the holiday break, Gaudreau had 28 points, eight behind St. Lawrence’s Greg Carey. Between BC’s return on Dec. 28 and now, Gaudreau’s Eagles have played four more games than Carey’s Saints.

And just like that, the explosive Gaudreau now leads the points race, 40-37.

Gaudreau has potted six goals and six assists in the five games since returning from the break, with the Eagles posting a 4-0-1 mark in that time. Last Friday night, Gaudreau factored into four of BC’s five goals (2-2–4) in a key 5-2 league victory over Providence.

Saturday, when Gaudreau played in his 100th collegiate game, he registered a single assist, his 21st of the season to collect career point No. 136, passing his coach Jerry York (to his credit, York got 135 points in 81 career games).

At this point, Gaudreau has scored in 16 consecutive games and 20 of 21 contests.

As impressive as the 5-foot-7 forward has been throughout his career at BC, York said his current play is something college hockey hasn’t seen in quite a while.

“Johnny has had an incredible career here at BC, but right now he’s at the very top of his game,” said York. “He’s improved every year. But right now, this is the best I’ve seen him play. Practices, games. People last year were saying, ‘What else can Johnny do?’

“Johnny wants to get better at every facet of his game. He’s better defensively. I think he’s stronger on the puck. He’s shooting the puck better.

“It’s an awful lot of fun for us to watch him play.”

Here is a stat to put on display Gaudreau’s clutch play: He has scored five game-winning goals, just one short of his career high set last season. But he’s also factored into four other goals that either won the game or tied it in the third period.

You have to go back to 2009 and BU’s Matt Gilroy since Hockey East has had a Hobey Baker Award winner. But if Gaudreau keeps on his current pace, he could easily be a unanimous choice for that award.

Hockey East and the PairWise

With USCHO debuting this year’s PairWise Rankings, we see how Hockey East stacks up against the rest of the nation.

Right now, it’s pretty impressive.

As of Wednesday, five Hockey East teams rank in the top 16 led by Boston College at No. 2. Northeastern (t-6th), Providence (t-8th), Massachusetts-Lowell (t-8th) and New Hampshire (13th) and Notre Dame (16th) all sit above the PairWise line (though, if the season ended today, Notre Dame would lose its position in the NCAA field to the Atlantic Hockey champion).

And while having six teams above the bubble line is impressive, what’s more eye-opening is that the 17th and 18th ranked teams are Vermont and Maine, respectively.

There’s a lot of hockey to be played, but imagining as many as six Hockey East teams in the NCAA field is an absolute dream scenario.

USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.

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  • bronxbomberz41

    No slight to the people who put it on this year, because they were tasked with impossible conditions of maintaining a safe and solid playing/skating surface outdoors for 2 weeks in a coastal city that is notorious for not actually being all that cold through much of the winter (rains more in Boston than snow during storms) but this was an absolute mess. I was on the “outdoor games are cool” side for a while, but that was when you would still be getting the one NHL game and maybe a couple college under-cards. Now its getting out of control. And Fenway may be “America’s most charming ballpark” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is, if you’re not a Sox fan and all enamored with the nostalgia of Fenway (similar to the old Mystique and Aura from YS2), then its actually a pretty terrible place to see a baseball game, let alone a hockey game. Sight lines are bad all over the place, its very expensive, the seats are small and uncomfortable, and half of them don’t even face home plate. Football stadiums are better suited for this, given how they are shaped, but even then, the biggest stadiums start the fans so far away from the rink that it looks disconnected on TV. It takes away from what makes hockey arguably the best sport for live viewing out of all the major sports, the fact that you’re close in and right on top of all the fast paced action.

    If the Bruins host another outdoor game at Gillette, or even say at Alumni Stadium at BC, I say go ahead and have a few HEA games, in one weekend. But not this tomfoolery again. HEA shouldn’t be shouldering this kind of effort alone, they need the NHL/Bruins to be a part of it as well.

    • ErixTheRed

      I thoroughly enjoyed both times Maine has played. Does the view suck from below? Yes, but the upper decks were empty and they were incredible; reminiscent of the balcony at the Alfond. The rain was not so bad as to make sitting in the open an issue and it really didn’t slow the puck as much as I thought it would.
      All in all, I would go again in a heartbeat.

    • Snark_Week

      Outdoor hockey at Alumni?! in winter?! You don’t mess with “the bubble” or “the bubble’s” schedule. You may gaze upon the bubble. You may wonder what strange and fanciful things go on under “the bubble,” like “is Tom Brady practicing in there?” “Is the Field Hockey Team having a pillow fight practice?” “What happens to the stabled unicorns when a winter storm deflates the bubble like the Metrodome?”

      These are the mysteries of the bubble which cannot be answered by mere mortals and will not yield for something so pedestrian as “an outdoor hockey game.

      • bronxbomberz41

        I have no idea what you’re talking about…

    • ChuckGandCrew

      A number of DIII teams played there as well this year, plus some high school squads. But have no fear, football is scheduled to play there next year! What a joke. Fenway needs to be stopped. Someone needs to intervene, otherwise this will go on forever, with new sports (Rugby, Cricket, who knows what else can be played there?!?!).

      • noonan18

        Didn’t they have soccer there a few years ago?

        People had to know after the Bruins played at Fenway a few years ago that they would keep doing it. Nothing is ever a one and done deal with that city. It has to be beaten to death. Watch NESN if you don’t know what I mean. They beat everything to death.

        Can’t blame Jackson for his comments. Honestly, the NHL is becoming over saturated with outdoor games now. The New Years game was special, now everybody is having them. People just can’t leave well enough alone. An outdoor game in LA with no snow and a beach volleyball court? That pretty much sums up what a joke this is becoming.

      • bronxbomberz41

        like…the Patriots? or is it like, BC or UMass or something? Boston could have had an awesome downtown sports complex at the Seaport (the original plan was for a Fenway replacement AND a football stadium) but their intransigence about leaving behind the ol’ ballpark made people go ape, and that ship sailed a long time ago. I remember when they replaced the Garden and people freaked out. But they needed to tear that hole down and now they have a nice arena that still has a great atmosphere for live sports.

  • David D

    The games at Fenway were a joke. I hope Hockey East never does this again. They should have used common sense and rescheduled the games that were played in the rain but they thought they knew better.

  • ChuckGandCrew

    I understand the point, get more T.V. coverage, bring more eyes to the sport, etc etc. But playing in conditions so bad that you have to blow a horn at the 10 minute mark to switch ends makes it feel like an exhibition game and turns viewers off. Plus, Lowell fans got the short straw by not being able to see the game, having the time changed (three?) times. But that’s besides the point. If the games resulted in generating a greater fan base, then perhaps they could potentially be worth it, but the fact is that today a greater fan base is done through increased T.V coverage first. I think people are just getting tired of this outdoor stuff and unfortunately these games fell at the pinnacle of timing for complaints. If you wanted to play outdoors just play at UConn, right? MC and PC were smart to make them non-conference games. I wish Lowell had the foresight to do this as well.

  • smack_libs_around

    My son and I went to the games (well, 1.2 games anyway) and thought it was OK. The spectacle of it has evaporated, as anything done too much will. It was made reasonably bearable thanks to nearly 60-degree temperatures, and despite the rain I thought most of the goals were ‘pretty’ ones. So the teams played in spite of the conditions, and did so admirably. The biggest thing is seeing Northeastern coming on like gangbusters…and Lowell going the other way.

  • hockeyman41

    Even this year’s NHL Winter Classic in Detroit was tough to watch on TV with all the snow causing slow play. In response to this year’s Frozen Fenway, I’m not convinced it is in the players best interests to skate or play on watery ice. In theory, the Fenway games are a great idea. In practice, given the unpredictable nature of Boston weather and the difficulty in keeping the playing surface frozen outdoors, I would consider other opportunities to develop the college hockey fan base.

  • Peter Franklin

    I would hardly call the conditions on the ice that day “playable”

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